Conflict Can Damage a Practice Professionally and Financially

February 27, 2017
Ed Rabinowitz

Unresolved conflict can have a significant impact on a dental practice’s image and productivity. Recognizing conflict and addressing it early on are the keys to avoiding serious problems down the road. Sharon Dolak, MDR, R.D.H., explains how to make that happen.

Conflict in your dental practice is inevitable. The key to making sure it doesn't become a chronic issue is addressing it head-on.

It’s often said that conflict is inevitable, and that’s true. As Sharon Dolak, MDR, R.D.H., of Dolak Dispute Resolution points out, anytime there is more than one person in a room, at some point, there will be conflict.

But that doesn’t mean that all conflict is bad.

“Conflict indicates that something isn’t working right,” Dolak says. “Positive changes can occur when the team is focused on finding ways to resolve the problem in the business.”

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Dolak explains that there are so many moving parts in the dental office that very good systems need to be in place to keep the office running smoothly. Often times those systems are either not in place or they are not adhered to by the team. And often people will try to avoid dealing with a problem with the hope that it will just go away. It won’t.

“Conflict management styles that are either aggressive, or avoidant, are ineffective,” Dolak says.

RECOGNIZE THE CAUSES

It’s very common for conflict to be present at different levels in a dental office. Staff is working closely, working on a tight schedule, and dealing with patients who are afraid or in pain — or just don’t want to be there. Team members are expected to be “on” all the time. Throw into the mix a perceived hierarchy in the office, and it’s a recipe for conflict.

For example, Dolak points to conflict between the back and front offices, in which the front office is packing too many patients into the schedule and assistants can’t keep up. Or the assistant versus the dental hygienist conflict, in which hygienists see themselves as producers and don’t want to engage in tasks to keep the office running. Assistants then become resentful. There are also overbearing office managers who micromanage and push for more production.

Dentists, Dolak says, didn’t go to school to be facilitators of human relationships, and generally just want all the problems to go away.

“These are simple but common scenarios in the dental office,” Dolak says. “What causes them to be a problem is most times these issues are ignored and not dealt with properly.

Poor communication, and hurtful communication mostly is the cause.”

Why doesn’t staff deal with problems head on and handle them face-to-face?

“Why would they want to when they have an attitude of I am right and they are wrong?” Dolak points out. “The parties each become entrenched in their position.”

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THE FINANCIAL IMPACT

Dolak says that if left unresolved, dental office conflict can have a significant negative impact on practice revenue. For example, a dentist has two employees whom he or she is paying $20 per hour for a 36-hour work week. That’s $720 per week, or $37000 per year. Over the last month, they have been bickering over petty stuff. The dentist ignores it. It’s barely on his radar. Very easily the two employees spend about a couple hours per week of time gossiping and stirring the pot.

“Tensions will escalate and it spreads through the office,” Dolak says. “It becomes a toxic work environment. The dentist paid them but they were not working and producing.”

And patients definitely feel and are aware of the conflict. They will often leave a practice and no one ever knows why. But they’ll talk to their friends about the office, and that affects referrals and new patients who might have considered coming to that practice. Perhaps most importantly, Dolak says, is that the direct cost of this office drama is not obvious to dentists.

“CPP Inc., of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, commissioned a study on workplace conflict, finding that in 2008, U.S. employees spent 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict,” Dolak says. “This amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days.”

FIXING THE PROBLEM

Dolak says that, fundamentally, businesses are built on relationships. In a healthy workplace, service and profit flow smoothly through open communication. As staff communication and relationships remain open, patients receive good treatment, and the business is profitable. As relationships among staff deteriorate, service erodes as well. As such, there is a direct link between the quality of the relationships in any business and the quality of service, production and profit.

“When we are in conflict, we say things we do not mean and we mean things we do not say,” Dolak says. “Rarely do we communicate at a deep level to truly express what we are thinking and feeling. Learn how. Spend money and time teaching communication skills. Make it a safe place to express differences of opinions and train to do it respectfully.”

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